"Late Night with Trump" and Scorched Earth Humor

Mar 11, 2020

Donald Trump is a frequent target for comedians in this country, more so than any other politician. And that intrigued two Virginia scholars. 

They’ve now written a book after reviewing more than 100,000 jokes about the president. 

Long before he announced his presidential ambitions Donald Trump was an entertainer, a darling of the New York media scene, known for being rich and outspoken. “He was a guest host on Saturday Night Live. He was regularly interviewed on some of these entertainment shows,” notes Professor Stephen Farnsworth. He heads the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

“He was one of these people famous for being famous.  I mean for a younger audience we might describe him as a Kardashian for the 80’s.”   And when he announced a run for president, the late-night talk shows were delighted.  Here, Farnsworth says, was a guy who invited comedic attacks.  “As a larger than life figure in terms of his blustery nature, in terms of his aggressive nature and speech and maybe in terms of his unconventional mannerisms, all of these things lend themselves to mockery.”

Trump was even funnier because he took himself so seriously. “The more you laugh at yourself, the more you can insulate yourself against late night comedy. When FDR left his dog Fallah on a military trip to Alaska, he joked about his dog was very upset about the expense that was required to recover the dog when it was accidentally left behind.  And, of course, the most famous of them all was Abraham Lincoln.  He said, ‘People call me two-faced, but if I was two-faced would I be using this one?’  When a politician can laugh at himself, it makes him endearing.”

Credit Routledge

Farnsworth and his colleague Bob Lichter at George Mason University decided to write about political humor and the American presidency in a book entitled Late Night with Trump.  Students helped them comb through thousands of monologues where late night comedians joked about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump.  They concluded that the culture of this country had changed, and that was reflected in the edgy jokes told by Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, John Oliver and the cast of Saturday Night Live. 

“The one late night comic who was less critical of candidate Trump than the others, Jimmy Fallon, saw his ratings decline. The message is clear that what the audiences of late night comedy are looking for is this kind of scorched earth humor,” Farnsworth says.

Trump made the comedian’s job easy with his many inconsistencies, and his propensity to respond. “There are a lot more people watching Alec Baldwin’s imitation of Donald Trump because Donald Trump is so bothered by it. He draws so much attention to the late night comics when he fights back on Twitter. 

Some say comedians have cheapened the political process, but Farnsworth sees humor as an important safety valve for society and a good way to draw people into politics.  "A joke about Mitch McConnell is not funny if you do not know who Mitch McConnell is," Farnsworth says.  "If you don’t follow politics, how much humor really is there in a Putin joke. Late night comedy is sort of the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine of political learning go down."

As it happens, the jokes appeal more to those who dislike Trump than to his supporters, and while conservatives have done well with talk radio and Fox News, they can’t get comedy off the ground. “What works well on talk radio is a sense of anger, a sense of outrage.  That anger is not the fertile field for comedy.”